Hug for my mother’s Lithuanian cousins,
HILL OF CROSSES (Kryžiu Kalnas)
It’s an ever-changing never-defeated religious folk art gallery, a historical and architectural monument in an unlikely place that attracts people savoring its peace, spirituality, authenticity, and sacred nature.
The Hill of Crosses (Kryžiu Kalnas) is a stunning complex that consists of thousands of crosses of various materials and sizes brought and left there by the people, mostly Lithuanians.
An oblong mound, once the location of a castle of Semigallian tribe (until it was burned down by the Crusaders), sits next to a former ancient village dating to the 13th-14th. The mound, somewhat similar to a saddle, stands on a plain surrounded by the valleys of Kulpė Stream and its nameless tributaries. It measures only 8-10 meters high and 40-50 meters wide.
The Jurgaičiai-Domantai mound, located in the countryside 9 miles outside the small northern Lithuanian city of Siauliai, is covered with crosses.
There are conflicting stories about the origin of the Hill of Crosses:
- Many crosses appeared after the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus appeared on the mound in the 7th decade of the 19th century. It was Mary who supposedly encouraged people to put crosses at this place.
- Crosses first began to appear at this spot in the thirteenth century, shortly after the city of Siauliai was founded in 1236. The city was controlled by Teutonic Knights during the 14th century. The tradition of placing crosses seems to date from this period and may have risen as a symbol of Lithuanian defiance toward foreign invaders.
- The first crosses were erected on the hill by the next-of-kin of the rebels who fell in the 1831 rebellion against Russia. Family members were not permitted by the Tsarist reign to pay proper tribute at the graves of their relatives. The Hill of Crosses became a place of vows.
- There was a Lithuanian tradition of leaving the crosses on the road and most beautiful sites. The story is that each person who put his own cross on this mountain would become a lucky guy. Thus thousands come here and installed their custom crosses, It’s said that this tradition appeared before Christianity came to Lithuania and Russia, and is of pagan origin
- After the rebellion in 1863 the traditions of visiting and erecting crosses on the hill began to form. Many crosses were erected upon the hill after the peasant uprising of 1831-63.
Since the medieval period, the Hill of Crosses has represented the peaceful resistance of Lithuanian Catholicism to oppression. Over time, there has been varying numbers of crosses at the site.
- In 1850, there were 17 large crosses.
- Between 1895 and 1898 the number increased to 180.
At the start of the 20th century the hill was quite well known, being visited by many people having services and feasts there.
- By 1895, there were at least 150 large crosses
- In 1914, 200 large crosses
- In 1938 there were over 400 large crosses.
In 1940, after the USSR and Germany made a pact that included carving up the countries between them, Lithuania was annexed and occupied by the USSR.
- By 1940 there were 400 large crosses surrounded by thousands of smaller ones.
However, the agreement between the USSR and Germany was ignored. Germany occupied the Baltic state in 1941. Three years later they retreated, leaving the USSR to once again occupy Lithuania.
From 1944 until Lithuania’s independence in 1991, Siauliai was a part of the USSR. During this era the pilgrimage to the Hill of Crosses became expression of Lithuanian nationalism.
During its occupation of Lithuania the Soviet government was displeased about the symbolism of the hill and its crosses, a silent memorial to faith under communism that went against the Soviet anti-religion and anti-nationalism policy. The USSR began a “demolition” period which lasted for almost 20 years.
In 1958, the collective farm Meškuičiai began digging gravel on the Hill of Crosses.
During the USSR occupation the hill was leveled three times: 1961, 1973 and 1975.
In 1961 the hill was surrounded by bulldozers. Wooden crosses were damaged or burnt, metal crosses were taken to the scrap dump, and stone and concrete crosses were smashed, buried or thrown into Kulpė Stream. Every year the authorities destroyed 500 crosses under the excuse that they were only taking away the crosses “of no artistic value”. The area was covered with waste and sewage.
The USSR also presented plans to build a dam on the nearby river. Had they succeeded the Hill of Crosses would have disappeared beneath fifty meters of water. The plan, however, was considered too expensive and the Hill remained.
Lithuanians continued their pilgrimages to the Hill of Crosses to leave their tributes. The authorities saw this as an obstinate attempt by the people of Lithuania to retain their identity, both religious and cultural, under communism.
Authorities kept going. The number of crosses grew:
- In 1960, there were 2,500 large crosses alone.
The authorities announced a swine-fever and rabies “epidemic,” forbidding entry to the territory. The road to the hill was even guarded by police. Still, the faithful returned.
At the end of the 1980s, it was chosen to weir Kulpė, which had already been turned into an effluent pitch of sewerage, to flood the hill.**
Still, new crosses appeared every night. Through each of four demolitions the Hill of Crosses persevered, prevailed, sprang back to life.
By September 1991 it was a member of the United Nations. However, Soviet troops remained until August 1993. That September Pope John Paul II visited the Hill of Crosses, declaring it to be a home for hope, peace, love, and sacrifice.
After a fire in 2007 the hill was soon covered in thousands of new crosses.
- Today there are more than 100,000 crosses at the site.
Some crosses have a supplicant message for persons in the visitor’s prayers.
The size and variety of crosses is as amazing as their number. Beautifully carved out of wood or sculpted from metal, the crosses range from three meters tall to the countless tiny examples hanging profusely upon the larger crosses.
I may never travel to Lithuania. However, if I do, I won’t miss visiting the Hill of Crosses and leaving a special one there with prayers for my family, friends, neighbors, and world peace.